December 03, 2009
By Doug Pullen
Excerpted from El Paso Times

It's easy to think of Kiss as a mere branding opportunity. Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley and company practically pioneered blatant self-promotion in rock 'n' roll, selling everything from underwear to caskets with their distinctive brand on it.

But there's another, more vital role that the men in tights and black-and-white makeup have played in our world these past 36 years.

"We all came here to escape from the world tonight," Stanley announced more than midway through a 2-hour and 15-minute performance Wednesday before a sell-out crowd at UTEP's Don Haskins Center.

Escapism's exactly what these kabuki rockers are all about, well, that and a high profit margin. In Kiss' world, a rock 'n' roll concert isn't supposed to pummel you with platitudes about global warming and world hunger. It's about rock 'n' rolling all night and partying every day, slugging down that last-call glass of cold gin and licking up the love gun.

And the El Paso crowd sure licked up their heros. About three generations of 'em, in fact. There were little kids wearing Simmons' trademark demon makeup, and there were a few guys my age (52) who did the same.

One doesn't go to a Kiss concert for the fine musicianship either, though current guitarist Tommy Thayer and long-running drummer Eric Singer certainly are improvements, instrumentally speaking, over the guys they eventually replaced, original guitarist Ace Frehley and original drummer Peter Criss. The newer guys may wear the older guys' makeup, but they're definitely better players.

That gives founding members Simmons - he of the lascivious tongue wagging - and the screechy-voiced, ever-playful Stanley plenty of room to just be Kiss, pointing at audience members, flicking an endless procession of souvenir Kiss guitar picks to the crowd, vamping for the three video screens and doing what they're famous for.

In Simmons case, that's spitting fake blood on "I Love It Loud," which ain't exactly "God of Thunder" but still provides the drama when he flies up to a platform high above the crowd to sing it. Stanley's big stunt, aside from shimmying in those four-inch platform boots, is flying over the floor crowd to a raised, circular, rotating stage during "Love Gun," one of four songs that make up the 15-minute encore.

The stunts, old and newer twists on a form of pyrotechnic spectacle Kiss practically pioneered, are as famous as the songs these guys have made popular over the years; anthems like "Rock and Roll All Night" and "Shout It Out Loud."

That Kiss pulled out all the stops, musically and visually, in the final third of the show was a good thing. It provided an appropriately celebratory conclusion to an occasionally uneven performance, which started strong with "Deuce" and "Strutter," sagged here and there in the middle (new "Sonic Boom" song "Say Yeah" had "crowd-pleasing sing-along" written all over it, but those '70s era solo segments are momentum killers).

Stanley made that escapism comment during the best part of the set, as well as praising the military members of the audience as "the real American heroes" and boastfully pointed out the pre-teen additions to the Kiss Army. It kind of made all his other routine banter a little less laughable.

You had to know the show would be a good one with the kind of energetic performance that openersBuckcherry gave. The band's been here several times, and it's been to hell and a back a few times, but singer Josh Todd and company obviously appreciate the second chance they got a few years back and performed like they meant it.

It's easy to get cynical about Kiss, a band that once took off the makeup when it was commercially expedient, then put it back on 13 years ago when the band's fortunes needed a serious goosing. But you couldn't help but get the sense that the band's out to do more than pad its bank accounts on the current "Kiss Alive 35" anniversary tour.

Just as they Kiss did back in the 1970s, these four guys in kabuki clown makeup are also out to make us smile and forget our troubles for a couple of hours.